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Preckwinkle sends staff to fix morgue problems

Friday, January 20, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says there’s no question: If the county morgue had better management there wouldn’t be what sources say is a pileup of bodies there.

So Preckwinkle announced Friday she’s decided to assign a member of her senior staff to work daily at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office to shore up problems — putting even more pressure on chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones.

“In the course of the last year we’ve had a series of issues at the Medical Examiner’s Office,” Preckwinkle said at an unrelated news conference Friday. “This week I detailed a senior [staff] member…to be present in the Medical Examiner’s Office every day going forward to see if we can address some of the issues there,” Preckwinkle said, noting that while financial woes have been a contributing factor “I think it’s fair to say we have some ongoing management issues there.”

Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

As first reported in the Sun-Times, sources say employees have been disgusted about bodies piling up at the office — in some cases stacked atop each other in blue plastic tarps against a wall of the storage cooler.

When the story first broke more than a week ago Jones said “yes, we do” have a larger than normal number of bodies at the office. But she said there were about 300 bodies there, not the 400 adults and 100 fetuses one source told the Sun-Times were in the cooler there.

While Jones said there is no average for the number of bodies kept in the morgue, 2121 W. Harrison, she said the increase in bodies is the result of budget cuts, specifically state aid to bury those on public aid.

Last summer the state cut $13 million from the program, but the funding has since been reinstated.

Without that money, she argued, the bodies couldn’t be sent to funeral homes and buried.

The county, for its part, also has a program to fund burials of unclaimed bodies, putting them in what’s known as pauper’s graves at Homewood Cemetery. And on Wednesday, Jones said 30 adult bodies and 47 fetuses that had been kept at the morgue were buried as part of that program.

Last fall, officials announced a controversial program to donate to science the remains that go unclaimed after only two weeks ­unless families object. But only one or two bodies have been donated since the start of the program.

A source in the Medical Examiner’s Office said Thursday that problems persist, though the overpowering stench has evaporated and bodily fluid, including blood that had pooled on the floor of the cooler, has finally been cleaned up.

“We’re talking about blood-born pathogens spreading disease,” the source said. “We’re talking about something that could cause health problems for people working here.”

The Illinois Department of Labor is “aware of the situation involving workers” at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office “because it’s been brought to our attention” said department spokeswoman Anjali Julka. She could not discuss whether a complaint had been filed with the agency, which has authority to investigate working conditions at public sector jobsites — such as the county Medical Examiner’s Office — when health and safety issues arise.

“Potentially there is an investigation the department will launch” she said.

Earlier this week, Preckwinkle suggested Jones was standing in the way of cleaning up the morgue.

“My ability to deal with it is limited by the fact that the person who is in charge of it has a term of office as opposed to serving at my pleasure,” Preckwinkle said.

Jones was appointed by former Board President Todd Stroger in 2007 and, according to county ordinance, has an undefined term of office. The ordinance states: “… the Medical Examiner’s term continues until he or she resigns or is removed for cause following notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

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